By Katie Brenneman, Writer, Researcher
To be sure, telehealth did not begin with the COVID-19 pandemic, nor will it end with it. Indeed, virtual patient care has been evolving for years, emerging alongside the ascendency of the digital revolution in other domains, from shopping to education. What makes telehealth unique, of course, is the importance of the work. The reality is that the interactions that occur through telehealth may be and, indeed, often are, a matter of life and death. Given that the mission of medicine is always already to protect the life, longevity, and well-being of patients, one would imagine that, even in the digital realm, the lion’s share of the work would fall to human healthcare providers.
The reality, however, is that, in a system already overburdened by surging demand and a long-standing (and worsening) labor shortage, high-quality patient care may well depend not on human care providers but on machines. Now more than ever, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are offering exceptional telehealth experiences for patients and their families.
Increasing Access to Care
Even prior to the pandemic, the global healthcare system was floundering under a profound and worsening worker shortage. This shortage was only exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. By automating telehealth services using AI, healthcare systems are increasingly able to mitigate the detrimental impacts of the labor shortage on patient care. For example, the use of virtual agents on secure telehealth chat systems ensures that patients can enjoy almost immediate access to a healthcare provider, even outside of normal business hours. AI can cut down on administrative time-spend and burden for healthcare providers, reducing burnout and enabling them to dedicate more efforts toward patient care.
These systems can instantly alert offline operators to the receipt of a chat message from a patient or family member, ensuring that those in need get the answers they need when they need them. Or, AI systems can use electronic health records to help patients schedule and remember appointments. According to MIT Technology Review, which conducted a survey of over 900 healthcare professionals, 43% are already using AI to automate electronic health records, while 23% plan on doing so. And because these health chat systems must, by law, be HIPAA compliant, patients do not have to worry about their confidential medical information being compromised.
A good example of such a system is a genetic testing company’s chatbot, myCheck-in, which uses AI to analyze patients’ confidential health records and help them schedule healthcare appointments. Thereafter, it delivers reminders, helps them check in, or simply provides important information that the patient needs to remember. This can be especially useful for patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia, who otherwise may have issues accessing healthcare if they’re left to their own devices.
It is not only through the use of virtual agents that AI is enhancing patients’ on-demand access to care while also helping care providers to mitigate the harms of the labor shortage. The advent of AI-powered health chatbots may well turn out to be a game-changer when it comes to virtual patient care.
Conversational chatbots use the power of machine learning and natural language processing to interact with patients in real-time, asking questions and analyzing patients’ responses right away. These analyses can then be used to triage patients, including identifying patients who may be experiencing a significant medical or mental health emergency and connecting them immediately with the care they need.
In addition, health chatbots are also proving invaluable in clinical practice. Healthcare providers may engage with a chatbot in the process of diagnosing a patient and formulating a treatment plan. Equipped with a patient’s medical history, symptoms, scans, and lab results, chatbots can tap into literally billions of health data points to recommend further medical tests, finalize a diagnosis, or define an evidence-based treatment plan.
The result is not only a significant improvement in efficiency for the healthcare provider but also a speedier and more accurate diagnosis and a more effective and personalized treatment protocol for the patient. For example, Concierge, an AI chatbot by Welltok, achieved a patient-satisfaction rate of 98% when it comes to the accuracy of its responses. “Over 60% of users said it saved them time calling or searching for information,” according to InnovatioNews. Concierge specializes in helping patients sort through questions about health insurance, benefits, and the cost of care, delivering personalized responses that are easy to understand.
Hospital-quality Care at Home
Of the many advantages of AI-driven telehealth for the overall patient experience, few are more significant than the opportunity for patients to receive exceptional, round-the-clock care from the comfort of their homes. Automated health technologies, for example, are now able to provide continuous monitoring of a patient’s vital signs, daily activities (including nutritional intake, sleep quality, and medication compliance), and current health status.
AI telemonitoring is able to detect the signs of a fall or of a concerning deviation from the patient’s normal routine and can alert family members to the issue. They may identify sudden changes in heart rate, breathing, or blood pressure and summon first responders and the patient’s healthcare team. Indeed, the level of continuous and comprehensive monitoring provided by home-based AI health technologies is, perhaps, second only to that which a patient may receive in a hospital ICU. This means that patients who are medically fragile do not have to leave the familiarity and ease of their own homes to enjoy the medical oversight they need to ensure their safety.
Medicine and technology have long worked hand-in-glove to improve care provider efficacy while optimizing patient care. In the wake of ongoing labor shortages and surging demand, however, the role of technology in medicine is more important than perhaps ever before. Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of AI systems for telehealth patients.
Through AI, telehealth consumers are able to enjoy better access to their healthcare providers than ever before. AI systems can provide continuous remote monitoring of patients’ health statuses without requiring hospitalization. And healthcare providers can benefit from the immense power of machine learning to optimize the diagnostic and treatment planning process.